The land isn’t much to look at yet: A large swath of former sugar cane fields on the edge of downtown Hilo, next to a cemetery.

But if Hawaii island’s largest food bank has its way, in coming years the nearly 25-acre property that it purchased last year will play a big role in addressing food security on the island.

Leaders at The Food Basket started looking for agricultural land with room for a food processing center and a large community distribution warehouse, after witnessing the sharp rise in people who needed food in Hawaii during the Covid-19 pandemic.

A large taro leaf grows on 24 acres of land off Ponahawai St. that will to home to the new Hawaii Island Food basket. Photo: Tim Wright
A large taro leaf grows amid the grass on The Food Basket’s new property on Ponahawai Street in Hilo. The food bank hopes to raise $75 million to transform the land into an agricultural hub. Tim Wright/Civil Beat/2022

The food bank was also struggling with supply chain issues, and figured that perhaps the surest path to having enough food for everyone on the island would be for the nonprofit to start growing its own food, said Executive Director Kristin Frost Albrecht.

“It’s our best effort to end hunger, which is our mission,” Frost Albrecht said.

The Food Basket is one of several nonprofit groups in Hawaii taking new approaches to bolster local food production and address food affordability challenges.

Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center is seeking land to start a “seed to distribution” agricultural center. Malama Kauai is tackling food shortages on the island by finding ways to help chicken and fruit farmers grow their businesses. Hawaii Good Food Alliance is working with the state Department of Health to develop a program for farmers markets to accept WIC, a federal program that assists pregnant women.

These groups were all working on local food production issues before the pandemic, but there’s a new energy and sense of collaboration among many nonprofits, Frost Albrecht said.

“There is this urgency — we all feel it,” Frost Albrecht said, adding that nonprofits can often be more nimble than government in implementing new solutions. “We need to act.”

Big Plans In The Works

The Food Basket developed its plans for the Hilo property over the last year as part of a County of Hawaii-led coalition working on an agricultural development plan for the island. 

The coalition was competing for a large federal grant that would have funneled up to $100 million to various projects — including The Food Basket’s agricultural innovation center. Although the county did not end up winning the grant, the Food Basket says it is still moving forward with plans. 

The Food Basket’s plan is to tackle food insecurity on the island by increasing food production, along with improving processing and distribution for small and medium-sized farmers. 

The nonprofit’s grant application says the Hawaii Ulu Cooperative would be the anchor tenant for the property, and the space would include a large-scale dehydration system for turning indigenous crops into flour and other processed products. 

The Food Basket was originally looking for a 3-acre parcel, but quickly realized it needed more land to accommodate its plans. 

“It really became clear that we needed a bigger parcel to grow more food,” Frost Albrecht said, pointing out how unreliable the food supply chain has been during the pandemic. “What we’re going through right now just hits it home so hard.”

The Food Basket’s Hilo warehouse was overflowing with donations earlier in the pandemic. Now the storage shelves are often empty — one reason the nonprofit wants to develop its own agricultural hub in Hilo. Courtesy: The Food Basket/2022

Frost Albrecht said the nonprofit needs to raise about $75 million to complete the first major phase of its project, which would include clearing 16 acres of land for farming, building a community food center and food bank, and constructing a food innovation center where local producers could turn their produce into value-added products.

Frost Albrecht said her team is working to secure other federal funding, as well as applying for grants and running a capital campaign. At this point, the first thing the Food Basket will be able to do is clear the land and get producers started growing food. 

The Food Basket doesn’t plan to hire farmers outright. The goal instead is to establish small farmers on the land and be able to purchase from them for distribution through the food bank’s various programs. 

One goal in the grant application was to expand its DA BOX CSA program from 400 customers a week to 1,000. The program bundles fruits and vegetables from various local producers for weekly pickup by local consumers. Low-income residents who use food stamps to purchase DA BOX can double their funds, making it a program that helps address hunger while helping local producers. 

Healthy Food For All

Waianae Comp has been growing food on the grounds of its health center for years, said Alicia Higa, director of health promotion and community wellness. Groundskeepers care for ulu, avocado, mango and citrus trees — in addition to traditional Hawaiian medicine plants.

Food grown by the health center is a small part of efforts to address food access on the Waianae Coast, including pantries and weekly food distribution. The center also has a food as medicine program, where doctors prescribe fruits and vegetables to patients dealing with chronic diseases related to nutrition. 

To keep up with all these efforts to address food access, the health center is developing plans to expand its food growing capabilities, through what it is calling a “seed to distribution” campus. 

The campus — which Waianae Comp is still working on obtaining land for — would have edible landscaping throughout, a food warehouse, a certified classroom kitchen where community members could learn to cook with fresh foods grown on the Waianae Coast, and an incubator kitchen space where community members and growers could get support creating food products to bring to market, Higa said. 

Waianae Comp is also working to develop a gleaning program for backyard growers. There are a number of kupuna in the area who have mature fruit trees and would like to donate food but need help harvesting it, Higa said. 

Kristin Frost-Albrecht talks about the master plan for 24 acres of land off Ponahawai St. that will to home to the new Hawaii Island Food basket. Photo: Tim Wright
Kristin Frost Albrecht shows the Food Basket’s agricultural land to workers from the Roots program at Kokua Kalihi Valley. Nonprofits working to address food insecurity in the state are sharing information and collaborating on creative ways to address food access. Tim Wright/Civil Beat/2022

It will take a lot of creative thinking and nimble experiments to truly address the gap between need and production in the state, several nonprofit leaders said.

The Food Basket and Waianae Comp are both members of the Hawaii Good Food Alliance, a group that earned its nonprofit status at the start of the pandemic.

When tourism ground to a halt in 2020, the Alliance was able to use federal funding to help food hubs and food banks buy local produce for distribution to local residents in need. 

“We want everybody in Hawaii to have equal access to fresh, local, healthy food,” said Harmonee Williams, the executive director of the Alliance. 

Now that tourists have returned in full force and many farmers are back to supplying hotels and restaurants, it’s clear there’s a gap between the demand for local food and what is being produced. 

“What we’re realizing is there isn’t enough food — or the type of food that we have a lot of demand for on the island,” said Megan Fox of Malama Kauai, a nonprofit focused on increasing food production on Kauai.

For example, Fox said, the nonprofit identified a shortage of local eggs on Kauai. 

So Malama Kauai obtained grant funding for a three-year program to help farmers with education and resources to start egg farms. This year the nonprofit helped launch 17 new minority-owned egg farms on the island, Fox said.

Now Malama Kauai is buying eggs from those farmers for distribution through the nonprofit’s various programs. The new egg farms have the capacity to produce 25,000 cartons of eggs a year. 

The nonprofit is now looking to do the same with fruit and vegetable growers on the island, targeting specific produce items that are in high demand on Kauai. 

By doing the market research and providing business training, Fox said the nonprofit is able to help remove the risk for farmer-level innovation. 

“It’s an incredible way to be able to build our food security,” Fox said. 

As The Food Basket moves forward with plans for its Hilo land, Frost Albrecht is in frequent communication with Malama Kauai and the other members of the Good Food Alliance.

“We’re sharing plans. We’re sharing ideas about infrastructure,” Frost Albrecht said. “There’s a way to make (food security) happen faster. It’s just we have to do it collaboratively.”

Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Stupski Foundation, Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

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